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Monday, December 30, 2002

Yesterday's Paper, Today!

Yesterday I had a spasm of deja vu when reading the "Outlook" section of the Houston Chronicle, but I didn't think much of it. I figured I'd already read some articles and one cartoon on the web, via blogs. But then I realized that I'd read it all before in the Chronicle. I knew I'd seen one of the cartoons before, involving three men on camels who feared they were lost. (I didn't quite understand the cartoon, but the camels---in silhouette---were pretty. I knew I'd seen it in the dead trees edition because it had attracted a letter outraged that Christian symbols had been used to make whatever point the cartoonist thought he had.)

Turns out that there was a little goof at the printing plant:

But in several hundred thousand copies, the inside pages of the section were mistakenly reprinted from the Sunday Dec. 22 section. The error, for the record, occurred when a production technician pushed the wrong button during the lengthy press run, sending the wrong pages into the computer and onto the printing press.

The Chronicle claims to have a Sunday circulation of 736,000. This means that a large fraction of the print run was ruined. I wonder if they fired that guy.

I love this bit:

One e-mailer said cryptically that the mistake, "hints at a racist attempt to control information." (Presumably because an essay about Sen. Trent Lott could not be read in its entirety.)

Remember: the tinfoil is worn shiny side out.

Today's paper came with the correct version of Sunday's Outlook, no doubt for racist reasons. However, suddenly their home page doesn't work with Netscape 4.79; obviously they're trying to control the flow of information to people too stubborn to upgrade Netscape.


Silent Running brings us this Yahoo picture of a naked chick. Scientists at the Hebrew University in Rehovot are developing featherless chickens. These are particularly useful in hot climates, because they don't require so much ventilation. It also cuts down on the problem of disposal of the feathers.

There's an amusing story on this at the New York Times, which includes another picture of the beasties. Note that while the Yahoo picture ran December 20, the NYT story is from back in May.

I really like that Yahoo picture. Nekkid chickens look a lot more like dinosaurs than the feathered ones do. Behold the noble beast! Look at that stern eye! Imagine a fearsome creature like this, the size of a tyrannosaurus. He stalks through the forest, his mighty footfalls shaking the earth. He stretches forth his neck, and emits the blood-chilling cry of his kind: Roo-er-roo-er-rooooo!

Later, he spies his prey, a feeding parasaurolophus. Swiftly he closes on the hapless herbivore. The parasaurolophus then makes its fatal mistake---it looks up at the approaching hunter...and dies laughing. (Which is saying something, if you've ever seen a parasaurolophus.) Another easy kill for the Cluckosaur! Roo-er-roo-er-rooooo!

Sunday, December 29, 2002

Hello, Sailor!

Wilbur of the Australian blog HighInfidel-itee brings us some cheery news.

Read about the dumb letters to the Perth paper (not only wrong, but just plain stupid), then get to this:


If you think that the above examples show typical aussie attitudes to the yanks, please don't believe it. Today's Sunday Times also records that the recent visit of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier battle group to Perth was a resounding success, with thousands of US sailors enjoying their stay in Perth over Christmas, whilst injecting $3 million a day into the local economy.

The carrier also received 3000 "homestay" requests from Perth families. This is a long standing program where aussie house-holds offer a room to a US sailor for a couple of days, and allow him to stay there whilst in Perth.

"It was an unbelievable welcome from the people of W.A." said Cdr Tilgham from the U.S. Navy "...We actually had to close down a couple of phone lines because we got swamped with so many requests. We had to say sorry, we'd like to send some sailors ashore but we need a few guys left to man the pumps"

Gotta love those letter writers. They've touched a nerve with public opinion.

I have a second cousin who was a submariner, and he stayed with an Australian family, apparently under this arrangement. They got on fabulously, and he told me that the Australians were just the nicest people on earth. He made sure to see them every time he went back. This was long, long before I went out there.

(I hated living in Sydney, and the Sydney Morning Herald did make me grind my teeth, until I stopped reading it---but I must agree that the people are awfully nice. A colleague of mine lived in the country town of Armidale, New South Wales, returning to the US a few months before I left. I emailed him from Sydney to tell him that he was right about the friendliness of the people, and he replied that I should wait until I got into the countryside, where they're really nice.)

Via Tim the Oppressor.

Friday, December 27, 2002

The Review That Wasn't

Just got back from seeing The Two Towers. I feel obliged to report this, although I really don't have much to say about it. (It's been years and years since I read the books, and every single one of the approximately three copies I have of the trilogy is in storage where I can't easily get at it. I'm thinking of buying a cheap set at a used bookstore to do my Tolkien blogburst post. Either that or I'll just wing it and get stuff wrong.)

So, without having anything in particular to say, here's what I'll say:

The battle scenes were impressive. Gollum was good, but not perfect. Aragorn's hair still stringy. I thought Eowyn had a bigger part in the books, but I might've misremembered, or that might be in The Return of the King. The scenery is beautiful; we can always do with more scenery. They must have spent a fortune on helicopters. The transformation of Theoden is amazing and subtle. I thought The Two Towers ended with Sam and Frodo meeting "she", but I might be wrong.

I hate the dwarf-tossing jokes.

Now, I've mentioned before that Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragorn, is deeply offended that some people are comparing the battle of Good vs. Evil in The Lord of the Rings to our current situation. These people apparently cast the US in the role of the good guys, see, whereas Mortensen sees the US as Saruman. (To be fair---dammit---he says that civilians in Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever see the US as Saruman, but he also says that we are not the good guys in this conflict.) The money quote is here:

VM: You know, the people who are terrified at Helms Deep, who are outnumbered in this incredible violence and desire to control-to destroy-the people of Rohan and the rest of the free peoples of Middle-earth, and to control their wills, to control their infrastructure-or destroy it-that's what we're doing in these countries. That's really what we're doing unfortunately.

Actually, if you'll recall, Gandalf tells Theoden that Saruman does not want to control or destroy Rohan's infrastructure, he wants to destroy Rohan itself, "down to the last child", which is much like Al Qaeda's plan for us, unless they can get us to convert to Islam (that would be the "control the will" part).

But when you see the movie and see the vast legions of Saruman ranged against the few defenders of Helm's Deep, you do get an idea of how hopeless our enemies ought to feel (as well as, it must be said, their civilian hostages---er, populations). So one can sort of see where Mortensen's coming from, if you automatically equate "weak" with "right". But, just as might does not make right, it does not make wrong, either, you stringy-haired meat puppet.

Let's Have a Patty Melt (and a side of debate)

UPDATE: You just might want to know what this post is about. Look here.

Ordinarily I'd leave this alone, but apparently the Blogosphere kept the Lott issue alive long enough for Big Media to pick it up. Of course, BM picked it up from InstantMan and Sullivan, but I figure every little bit helps.

Now, I don't think this ought to be a case of " 'We' had to get rid of one of 'ours' so 'they' have to get rid of one of 'theirs'." For one thing, Murray's not in the Senate leadership, and for another, I, personally, don't want to claim either one of them as "mine".

But I do think that idiots of all stripes ought to be exposed for what they are, and I consider Murray's remarks to be much less ambiguous and more damaging than Lott's.

That said, let's consider this editorial in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Motto: "Our editorial board has the intelligence of a post.")

Sen. Patty Murray had the guts to raise an important question about the popularity of Osama bin Laden in some parts of the world.


Generally, Murray was right about bin Laden's activities in poverty-stricken Muslim regions.

In a wrong sort of way, yeah.

He has built roads in Afghanistan and schools in Pakistan, for instance.

Roads, the better to access his terror camps; and schools (madrassas) the better to spread his message of hate for the infidel. Sorry, these do not count as humanitarian projects.

One news report refers to a Pentagon fact sheet that mentioned bin Laden importing heavy equipment used in hospital construction, which seems to back up Murray's reference to health care facilities. While her statement about bin Laden providing day care facilities makes little sense, there is apparently a long-standing rumor that he built an orphanage.

Oh, a rumor! Well, pardon me, I thought it was a complete fabrication. Boy, do I feel silly. There's a rumor that he might have, somewhere, at some time, built a structure capable of housing children of some sort.

This sounds like someone desperately trying to make Murray look less than idiotic by digging up any information that might sorta kinda technically support her. It's not working very well.

Murray spoke in broad, even overstated,

that is to say, WRONG

terms about the lack of U.S. foreign aid in the region.

But she nailed the underlying reality: We could do a lot better helping the poor in central Asia and Africa.

That certainly is a subject for debate, but it doesn't really touch on the dimwittedness of her equation of Bin Laden's popularity vs the US's.

It might be true that Bin Laden has helped people in the region, but his popularity stems more from his anti-American message, as even the Post-Intelligencer realizes:

On balance, Murray did OK on the basic facts.
[Except that she was mostly wrong -- A.S.] But she deserves to be challenged on her apparent belief that bin Laden's popularity derives from treating poor people well.

Most of his support, we believe, stems not from any good works but from al Qaida's murderous attacks on Americans and others, including Muslims from many countries. Her discussion with the honors class would have been more enlightening if she had at least raised that possibility as she concluded her talk.

Furthermore, she said that the US had not contributed to the well-being of the region's people. That would be ignorant in a private citizen; in a US Senator it is inexcusable. Where is she when foreign aid is voted on?

(Note, by the way, how the Post-Intelligencer bends over backwards to lend some flimsy support to her catalog of Osama's good works, but barely acknowledges her breathtaking ignorance (or lies) about US financial aid.)

But her remarks and school visit certainly raised the level of thinking among the students. And the discussion that has developed on talk radio and in letters columns is, in most respects, worth having.


Beyond the spin and the blatant attempts to manufacture a political issue, there's still value in the debate. It's important -- vitally so -- to talk about the nature of our enemies and how we most effectively respond to their murderous assaults.

That's exactly the discussion she deliberately stirred in a Vancouver class. And now the debate has spread much more widely. Good for Murray.

Yeah, how about this: "Beyond the spin and the blatant attempts to manufacture a political issue, there's still value in the debate. It's important -- vitally so -- to talk about the nature of racism in America and how we most effectively respond to it. That's exactly the discussion he accidentally stirred at Strom Thurmond's birthday party. And now the debate has spread more widely. Good for Lott."

Uh huh. I can see it.

To be fair to Murray, I'll give her credit for having in her head much the same stuff Trent Lott had in his: mush. She was probably (and here I use my patented mind-reading skills) thinking only of exhorting the students to think about How We Can Do More, because We Must Do More is one of the basic tenets of her political tribe.

But the Post-Intelligencer is right about one thing: we do need to have a debate on these sorts of things. For example:

Sometimes despicable foreign governments have things we need, in the short term. Aid to them gets it for us, but it may damage us in the long-term, and they often use the aid (or money freed up by it) to oppress their people. Is this ethical? Does the short-term benefit outweigh the long-term harm? How much should the suffering of the people of that nation count in our calculus?

How do we alleviate suffering in nations with corrupt kleptocratic governments? If we give the government money, only a small percentage may get to the people. Is it right to give cruel governments more money, just so their suffering people will have a tiny bit more?

Or perhaps we should withold all money from it, and from the country's economy, so as to bring about its collapse. Is this ethical? Do the sanctions or the corrupt government hurt the people more?

The other way to relieve the suffering of those people is to kick out their corrupt governments by force; or, at the very least, threaten, cajole, or bribe them into behavior more to our liking. Is it possible to do this without seeming like an imperialist bully?

In fact, many steps that would help Third Worlders are politically impossible because they would appear (correctly) to be the actions of an empire. Leaving aside the question of whether Americans actually want to run the entire world (answer: no), even perceptions of empire are offensive. The famed "Arab street" is just as likely to rise up against an imposition of democracy (if there can be such a thing) in Libya as against naked seizure of Iraqi oil wells.

And just what, exactly, is our obligation to people in other countries? Is there any good reason to provide any kind of aid whatsoever?

Which brings us to the final point. While it's theoretically possible that Bin Laden might be loved because of his generosity in Muslim countries, we should not stand for being hated because of a theoretical lack of it. While we might aid these countries out of self-interest or generosity, we owe them nothing. We can't allow ourselves to be blackmailed for failing to provide aid, which is pretty much what Murray is suggesting.

(I have this theory, completely unsupported by any knowledge of anything. I think that some people believe that the US is all-powerful, so that famines and plagues and wars and plain old repressive governments exist only because the US allows it. If the US would just expend the effort, see, these things wouldn't exist. Therefore, since they do exist, it must be due to the malevolent intentions of the US. QED. I believe this sort of thing accounts for much of the "Arab rage".)

These are debates worth having, but they're not the ones Patty Murray wants to have. She only wants to have debates on "How Can We Do More?"

Via Juan Gato, who always has the good stuff.

Thursday, December 26, 2002

The Ghost of Christmas Presents

Ha! I have fooled poor Andrea Harris into thinking I was all profound 'n shit, when we all know that Christmas is really about the LOOT!

It took us all day to open our presents, because we must open them one at a time, try to preserve the paper (it goes into scrapbooks, or gets re-used), and exclaim over each gift.

I had a nourishing day with the Four Basic Present Groups all represented: books, music, videos, and software. (Don't you try to foist none of that jewelry or perfume crap on me.)

One of the books was Kitchen Kitsch, which is like Lileks's Gallery of Regrettable Food, except that not all of the food is regrettable, and there's no funny commentary. In fact, there's almost no commentary. There's a one-page intro which basically says, "The artwork in American ads and give-away cookbooks in the 1920s through 1960s was interesting. Here's some of it." The same intro is repeated in German and French, and that's it.

There are a couple items in common with Regrettable Food. There's an ad for Spry (vegetable shortening), but no Aunt Jenny. There's a couple graphics from 500 Snacks, but this edition is in living, glowing color (Lileks's was black-and-white).

I really wish for Lileks when looking through this book. What would he make of the Mary Celeste kitchen (everything's ready, the oven door's been pulled open, but where are the people?). Or a Dali impersonator posing as a Viking selling that most ruthless and bloodthirsty of foods, Ry-Krisp? How about the fact that several of the brands seem to be named "Good Luck"? Is that a cynical, mocking laugh I hear? One of these is "Good Luck, the original cold pack RUBBERS", which gave me a bit of pause until I realized they were seals for Mason jars.

Then there's "The Prince of the Gelatin Isles", which seems to be a children's story revolving around Jello. And the Masked Chef: no doubt the isolated housewives of the '30s and '40s fantasized about having a handsome man burst into their kitchens, ravish them, then teach them how to make a really good souffle.

And finally, there's this...thing---apparently published (by the American Meat Institute) soon after WWII. On a blood red background stands a slab of prime rib, several inches thick. It's accompanied by a a sinister-looking black knife and fork. And that's it. The copy says:

This Is Life

This is not just a piece of meat...this is something a man wants to come home to...something that helps children to grow...something that makes women proud of their meats.

This is a symbol of man's desire, his will to survive. For as old as man's instinct to live is his liking for meat. And to be satisfied in its eating.

Is it any wonder that, as meat moves back to the Home Plate, we look on meat with new regard, not just for its enjoyment, but as a nutritional cornerstone of life?

(Ellipses in original.)

That's not an ad, that's a sermon. "Now let us read from the Holy Book of Basting, in the Gospel according to St. Brisket of Angus..."

I bought Regrettable Food for my mother; she says she likes it. She also says she has several of the cookbooks pictured in it. She seemed a bit miffed at the insult offered the dendrite salad (shredded cabbage in lemon jello). She says that stuff's OK, and I believe she has a point.

Most gender-role-busting present: Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail. Besides having many beautiful pictures of sailing ships, it has swell diagrams of the ships, their sails, the rigging, armament, and various sailing maneuvers. I got into this sort of thing by reading C.S. Forester novels, which use a lot of 18th-century technobabble. I wanted to know what all that jargon meant. Since I haven't read the book yet, I don't know if it answers the Great Question of square-rigged ships: just what do all of those sails do?

Weirdest present: You know the Starr Wars poster from MAD magazine? The one that parodied Star Wars, and featured Clinton and Lewinsky and Starr? Well, it seems the tiny pseudo-country of Abkhazia (that's it in the NW of Georgia, by the Black Sea), has released it as a set of stamps. And Niles got me a sheet. According to some web sites I am far too lazy to read carefully, some people want Abkhazia to be independent. There are sites calling themselves the One True Official Website of the Legitimate and Not at All Phony Government of Abkhazia. As we all know, the first step in declaring independence is to release a goofy stamp. (Very soon, every square km of the world will be independent of every other square km, and then we will finally have Peace on Earth. Except for all the wars, of course.)

OOPSIE: These aren't legal stamps! Who knew??

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

The Christmas Miracle

We had our tree for several nights before decorating it (this was stalling on the part of Niles, who works late). We had to lop off a few large branches at the bottom, so that we had a fan-shaped bunch of foliage left over, about two by three feet. The other day I tied these all together, added some bows and ornaments, and hung it on the wall. We had a small string of white lights, and added those, and now we have a"arrangement", I suppose. (It's not round, so it can't be a wreath) This is the first time I've done something like this in about twenty years. It's the first time I've had the time.

We have enough ornaments for two or three trees. Every year we find some beautiful ornaments on sale after Christmas, and add them to our collection. We also get new Star Trek ornaments every year. We have ugly wooden ornaments I painted when I was ten, dough ornaments my niece gave me when she was about five, the cheap-but-shiny (oooh, shiny) ornaments I bought in Australia, various hand-crafted ornaments people have given me over the years, and a boxful of unicorn ornaments from the unicorn craze of the '80s.

But I also have a bunch of ornaments that look like the ones I had as a kid. There are shiny globes with glitter "snow" icecaps dripping down the sides. There are multicolored "Olde Worlde" teardrop-shaped ornaments with little puckered caves. And then there are the '60s ornaments. My mother gave some to my sister and me about a dozen years ago. They're something like the ones we had in the mid-'60s, when I was about five or six. These plastic ornaments have big holes cut in them, into which are placed tiny plastic scenes: a sprig of evergreen with a dove, or candles, or bells, or whatever. The interior surface behind the scenes is mirrored to give an illusion of depth. (The ones we had 35 years ago were yellow plastic in crystalline shapes, whereas these are multicolored in various shapes.)

(OK, this page has two plastic ornaments of the style I mean. The one on the right looks very like those we had when I was a kid. I have one like that on the left now, except that mine's gold rather than blue.)

Yes, this nostalgia has a point, sort of.

The other day Lileks talked about his nostalgia for the "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" TV special:

The voices, the style of the animation, the look of the characters, the arrangement of the music - that was how things were when I was growing up, and part of the subsequent appreciation I had was just reflexive nostalgia. It brought back a time when the entire world seemed to have turned towards Christmas, when December lasted forever and was over too soon. Milk, cookies, jammies, TV viewed from the worshipful position we assumed on the floor.

A big part of Christmas, for me, is the recreation of these Christmases Past. But it's not for nostalgia alone; it's to recapture a peculiar sort of miracle.

A couple of years ago I read someone waxing indignant that more kids believed in Santa Claus than believed in Jesus. This didn't surprise me one bit; I was more surprised that anyone was surprised. When I was a kid, it wasn't Jesus who watched us to be sure we were good. Jesus didn't come to our house---and for certain someone came to the house and left those presents. Our parents did not claim to have actually talked to Jesus. It was not Jesus's picture in the malls, on Christmas cards and wrap. It was not his "helpers" you got your picture taken with, and he was not the subject of TV specials. He did not eat the milk and cookies you put out on Christmas Eve.

Santa did all this.

I don't know whether that's true in all households. What I do know was that God and Christ were abstractions, sometimes talked about but never seen. But Santa Claus was real. And this, for me, was the true Christmas miracle: that there was a real man, living at the North Pole, who loved children and had been watching over them forever. The immortality of Santa Claus was very important. It provided a stability in the world that mere parents could not, and more concrete evidence of a creator than the nebulous Jesus.

So even today, Christmas Eve is a special time for me, a time when the time holds its breath, as a miracle hovers near the Earth. (I have to say, the same is true for New Years. On New Years Eve I always manage to believe that there is some real event happening. It's not just an arbitrary moment given undeserved significance by a human calendar; somewhere, a cosmic pendulum pauses in its swing, at the precise point where the past and future merge.) I know that this is just nostalgia, a hangover from my childhood. But it's such a happy hangover, full of the rare and precious sense of wonder, that I indulge in it each year. It gets harder and harder each year, too.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell explains the symbolism of representations of Shiva, and remarks:

Such a figure illustrates the function and value of a graven image, and shows why long sermons are unnecessary among idol-whorshipers. The devotee is permitted to soak in the meaning of the divine symbol in deep silence and in his own good time.

My idol is the Christmas tree. I always reflect on these things as I contemplate the tree. For me, the lights buried in the evergreen represent the stars, and therefore the universe. From any one perspective, some of the lights are hidden, showing that there are things we do not know. Other lights illuminate the glittery bits---the wonder and beauty of the universe. The strange '60s ornaments recall---powerfully---a time when I took all this a lot more literally than I do now (when I was a small child I wanted to live in the tree, and spend my days bathed in the pretty lights). The Star Trek ornaments represent my adult desire to explore said universe (but, you probably guessed that).

What the Wienermobile ornament symbolizes, I don't know.

UPDATE: Fred Pruitt says some of this stuff more briefly, and probably better.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Sober Gay Debate

From born-again conserative Tim Blair comes word of this article from the Sydney Morning Herald's woman in the US---whoopsie, apparently former woman in the US---Gay Alcorn, sister to Margo Kingston. (Alcorn was the proximate cause of my personal boycott of the SMH, though Lord knows overall it was a group effort on their part.)

This column is about the war. Alcorn says it's set for March, so those of you who had Feb 2 marked in red ink on your calendars should be feeling mighty foolish about now. She says that she "remains to be convinced one way or the other" about the necessity of war, which for an SMH writer, especially her, is actually quite open-minded.

Most of her column is only interesting if you're an Australian (and if you are, you go and read it and blog about it). The part that interests me is right here:

A Washington Post poll this week found that nine out of 10 Americans believe there will be war with Iraq, and that six out of 10 would support a nuclear attack on Baghdad if Saddam unleashes his chemical or biological weapons in response to an American attack. This was reported in the sober American style,

I don't think she's joking here. The American style is sober compared to the tone of an Australian paper.

but at least in the US the President has made his case that Saddam must "disarm or be disarmed", even if his arguments for deposing Saddam have jumped around.

Made his case. Heavens to Betsy. Someone inform the sober American press, because I don't think some of them got the memo. They were probably out getting drunk.

But here's the real kicker:

War may be the right thing, even if Bush says so. There is a vigorous debate in the US about this, particularly among some liberals normally hostile to American foreign policy.

A "vigorous debate"! Well! I keep hearing that we've not had a debate. Next time someone tells you that, hit them over the head with a Gay Alcorn.

(Christmas Eve is discount joke day here at the Machinery of Night. Set-ups are half price, you supply your own punchline.)

Saturday, December 21, 2002

Home is the Hunter, Home from the Mall

This is the song of Niles and Angie
Hunters on the plains of Houston
Stalkers of the seasonal flora
Looking for a Christmas tree

The two hunters stalked their prey for two days through the moist plains of Houston. They must needs find the perfect specimen---not too tall, nor too short; not too wide, nor too narrow, healthy and lush.

Finally, they found a herd they liked, and cut out one of its members. Boldly they struck! They grasped their victim, and the man at the dressing station lopped off a piece of its end, bound the prickly organism fast, and helped the hunters stuff it into the back of their tiny Nissan.

They paused to remember earlier hunts, which took place in the windswept wastes near Lake Michigan, when the temperature was three below. How the wind cut like knives of ice! They remembered their first hunt in Houston, when it was 70 degrees, and they first knew the wonder of Christmas in a warmer climate. Ha ha! they laughed!

With many cries of joy and anticipation did the hunters carry their prize back to their home. Great care was used in extracting it from the Nissan, and the female lifted it into her arms and bore it up the stairs and into their fetid lair. As a last act of defiance, it attempted to knock a VCR off its perch, but there it was foiled. Once inside the questing beast was placed into a bucket of water, and unbound, since now it was helpless.

Now that the male has unearthed the necessary equipment, the sought-for prize will be sat upright and decked with shiny metal objects, lights, and goofy, degrading ornamentation.

While the female was preparing to vacuum the needles from the carpet, she heard a strange clicking sound coming from the tree. It turned out to be one of the gentle forest creatures which had nested in the tree! She turned in time to see a flying insect the size of her hand arise from the tree and light upon a quilted chicken. Carefully she lifted the chicken and moved it slowly to the door, and then with many curses and imprecations she shook it, and the dazed grasshopper fell to the ground and wandered off.

The hunters then turned their attention to the rare and deadly mistletoe. In vain did they seek of it in the floral jungles near their home. Finally they took their hunt into cyberspace, inquiring of the cryptic oracle Yahoo of places where it might be found. Finally a likely watering hole was located. The female's dancing digit made contact with a denizen of the watering hole. Yes! The mistletoe had been sighted. The male was dispatched to bring it back. Flippity-flap! sang his vorpal wallet as he wrested the mistletoe from its place, leaving behind only some worthless pieces of greenish paper. And in triumph did he bring the limp and poisonous clump into the lair.

And there was much rejoicing. Not to mention smooching.

(I was going to re-write this whole thing in Longfellow style, but got bored after three stanzas. You're welcome.)

Friday, December 20, 2002


_____ is this year's hot new trend. Your assignment is to write 1000 words on _____'s effect on society. Be sure to include:

_____'s appeal to the unwashed masses.
_____ as a result (or cause---your choice, but bonus points for managing both) of intellectual and spiritual poverty.
The suspect origins and associations of _____, and its connoisseurs. Be sure to include evidence of racism, misogyny, pedophilia, and human sacrifice.
The government's complicity in the rise or flourishing of _____.
The irreparable damage to society that _____ has caused.
The greater authenticity of other societies which do not allow _____.

Note that you are not to fill in the _____. If you cannot critique a cultural trend without knowing what it is, your time in class has been wasted!

The inspiration for this assignment is this article from some chap I've never heard of (but Iain Murray has), who is supposedly a Fellow of Queen Mary, University of London. Queen Mary should be more careful about picking her fellows.

Fernandez-Armesto (our author-hero) only manages to touch on about half the above points, and not very convincingly at that. I'm afraid I'll have to give him a C for the class. His major mistake was in being intelligible. He did not refer enough to obscure myths and---much more importantly---scholars. When making an important intellectual statement for the newspapers, one must refer to people and ideas which are unknown to anyone not working in your field. This cannot be stressed enough! The more obscure and arcane they are, the better. This has a three-fold benefit:

1) Most people will quickly reach saturation, and turn to the TV listings.
2) Others will be impressed by the Big Words.
3) Even those who disagree with you will be left with the nagging feeling that if they knew what you were talking about, they might see your point

The number of people who will actually know what you're talking about will be vanishingly small. They can be discounted.

Summary: Fernandez-Armesto is troubled by the popularity of fantasy literature. Good, honest realism should be enough for us, but if it isn't, we should stick to the authentic myths of our ancestors. Reading fantasy drains your imagination, and makes you dissatisfied with your real life. Finally, people find fantasy more comfortable than history because the study of history only highlights the fact that humanity has "made no moral or intellectual progress for thousands of years and have grown most in our capacity to do ill."

I wrote a long, detailed critique of this article. But then I decided that you jaded, fantasy-bedazzled mindless sheep wouldn't read it, and what's more I would much rather abandon careful study and reasoned argument for a few cheap shots. It's not my fault; The Last Unicorn made me do it.

However, I'll touch on a few little things.

Fernandez-Armesto is bewildered by the appeal of fantasy:

Truth is supposed to be stranger, stronger than fiction, for ours is the strangest of all possible worlds: Middle Earth seems morally simple by comparison...

I hate to instruct a Fellow, especially one of Queen Mary's, but my humble suggestion would be that this is the frigging point. While fantasies can be complex, they are usually uncluttered by moral ambiguities and quotidian concerns. The notion of fighting Evil in the form of the Shadow in the East is much more satisfying than fighting Evil in the form of citizens who resist raising taxes to build a new sewer system for the north end of town. You may draw strength for the latter struggle from reading about the former; reading about the sewer struggle is unlikely to bring you anything but sleep.

Realism is unbeatably interesting: that is why social observation is the foundation of all the world's best books.

It has always been my experience that realism is unbeatably boring. I subscribe to the New York Times Book Review. I try to read every review, and if the books sound really appealing, I note them down for possible purchase. (Between being over seas and blogging, I'm way behind.) Very, very seldom does a work of mainstream fiction sound appealing. Nearly every book or story boils down to an examination of angst-ridden people agonizing over their squalid personal problems. Frankly, I have plenty of problems of my own. If I'm going to expend energy wallowing in angst, I'll expend it on my own problems. And mine aren't nearly as squalid (usually). There are, apparently, only a few basic plotlines in modern fiction:

Teen feels ignored/bored, acts out with substance abuse.
Young person on way up social/professional ladder sells soul, tries to fill void with substance abuse.
Middle-aged man very unhappy with lifetime accomplishments, tries to fill void with substance abuse.
Middle-aged woman very unhappy with men, tries to fill void with substance abuse.
Strange people in exotic lands do odd things for mysterious reasons. May or may not involve substance abuse.

I'd much rather read about a valiant lass slaying the dragon of Falnarch to gain the treasure of Midlothbitharth so that she can save her family's ancestral home of Bidnadjif'narrrr rather than read about Phyllis wondering whether she should stay with her overworked, remote husband rather than leave him for his boss (who will turn out not to want her). Bleah, just writing that makes me depressed.

Anyway, after singing the praises of realism for a while, Fernandez-Armesto suddenly switches to rhapsodizing about hand-crafted, home-grown myths:

But unreconstructed myths are usually better. They spring from collective effort, from folk memory and from a shared subconscious. Reading them gives you satisfactions no fantasy can supply...

I don't see how myths, chock-full of gods and monsters and miracles, fit in with "unbeatably interesting" realism, but that's probably why I'm not paid to write for the Times. I don't suppose it would do any good to point out that myths are no less "artificial" than LotR. Myths are the campfire tales early people told one another, which got gilded or stripped according to local taste, until someone managed to write them down, fixing them (more or less, and sometimes literally) in stone. Myth-making is not solely the domain of primitive man; we moderns can do it too.

The Icelandic Edda or the tales of the Sumerian gods could be dazzlingly cinematic and more exciting than any fantasy game. But the video-geeks, playing Harry Potter games, are too nerdy-eyed to notice.

It would be impossible to comment on this assertion, since it doesn't mean anything. I'll just point to the latter sentence as an example of something that sounds terrific when you have only the dimmest notion of what the hell you're talking about.

Skipping to the end:

Our fantasy fixation is worrying. Fantasy doesn't just feed on the imagination: it drains it. Virtuality erodes reality. Students who sweat over Elvish and Klingon will never dream in Chinese or Greek. Kids know more about the battles of Aragorn than of Alexander, the life of Harry Potter than the life of Harry VIII. Fantasy endangers history, some say: realism is on the way to extinction, shrinking from the syllabus, extruded from bookshops, de-accessioned from libraries.

Like the reference to nerdy-eyed video-geeks above, this is meaningless. It is patently untrue. Kids who are fascinated with Elvish sometimes grow up to be linguists. The excitement of fictional battles leads them to study real ones. Girls longing to explore the stars grow up to be astronomers.

But to hell with all of that. If there's anything that should have kept him from writing this silly article it's the fact that it's been done before. Jazz, automobiles, the jitterbug, rock n roll, science fiction, video games, the Internet---every five years or so there's some new trend that induces amnesia, blindness, and stupidity in the professorial class, and some of them are moved to write vapid pieces like this one. The End of Civilization is sighted, heads are shaken, panels are formed, continents erode away, and the world fails to end.

UPDATE: Andrea Harris also mentions this article, prompting a lively bunch of comments.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Who Wants Candy?

Jebus. Niles and I ordered up a bunch of Swiss Colony goodies for ourselves for Christmas. But they're not due until the 19th, so last week, while we were buying something for my sister-in-law, we got ourselves a box of fancy candies. My mother tells me she's baking today, making the special Christmas treats she knows I'll love. So we're all set for Christmas.

So what did we get in the mail yesterday? A huge package from my grandmother: five tins of Danish butter cookies and a gallon of ice cream. That's not what's in the containers, of course. It was homemade Grandma-goodies---sugar cookies, chocolate chip cookies, Grandma's special Chinese noodle cookies, and some pecan-caramel-chocolate candies she's never made before. Urp.

I'm wondering if she didn't get confused and send all the things she'd baked for all her grandkids and great-grandkids. Or maybe that's all the goodies she baked for me over the last three years, and couldn't send me. Australia is very strict about the kind of things you can import, and anything with milk---and that would include chocolate---is Right Out. Hope she didn't save those up for three years.

The worst part is, almost everything has nuts in it. Niles can't eat nuts, so I have to consume them all. I'd stick them in the freezer, but that's full of bagels.

I could email you guys some, if I could just squeeze them into the wires here. Nobody touches the pecan thingies, though.

Saturday, December 14, 2002

Lott Looks Back

I have yet to comment on this Lott business. I know that you all have been waiting with bated breath. "What, oh what, will Angie think?" you whisper. "Only then will we have the definitive word on the topic!"

Well, I shall taunt you no more. But I want to see if I've got it straight first.

Trent Lott, Senate majority leader, was at a birthday party for centenarian Senator Strom Thurmond. Thurmond ran for President in 1948, against Truman, as part of a Democratic Party wing who thought that the eradication of segregation, poll taxes, and lynching was going to destroy the South's precious way of life. The exact nature of Dixiecrat platform was not aired at the birthday party.

Lott, while praising Thurmond, said that if he (Thurmond) had been elected President in 1948, "we wouldn't have had all these problems all these years."

Now, this is a very vague thing to say; it can mean almost anything. A lot of people have taken it to mean that in Lott's heart of hearts, he wishes that we had the good old days of Jim Crow and "Strange Fruit" back again, when he could sit on the veranda at dusk, sipping mint juleps while the happy songs of the laboring darkies wafted on the evening breeze. Or at the very least he wouldn't have to worry about his daughter marrying a black man.

Since I don't know Lott, I don't know what is in his heart. But I figure what is in his head is what is in the heads of most politicians in the position of eulogizing some fossil: mush. His job is to get up there and say Nice Things about the old dinosaur, and so he picked a random nice thing that turned out to be kinda stupid.

In fact, originally I was sure that "all these problems" had to refer to the previous administration. Lord knows, in the eyes of many, you can use little black children for kindling and slap burkas on all the women and still be a saint if you are not Bill Clinton. (And that's a topic for another rant.)

But, it turns out that Lott said that once before, about Thurmond, at a Reagan fundraiser in 1980. Maybe it's a stock phrase of his, good for any failed Republican Presidential candidate. Did he say it for Ford? For Dole?

I don't know. I don't know what, if anything, was going through Lott's mind.

But there's one thing I really cannot comprehend.


Lott babbles something which may or may not indicate that he wishes Thurmond had won the '48 election. Why is this more upsetting than the fact that the man who headed that horrible platform is still sitting in the Senate?? Oh, I forgot, he reformed. That's right, he saw the error of his wicked ways and renounced his former beliefs when he saw that was no longer politically expedient to cling to them.

Meanwhile, in keeping with his vague crime, Lott has babbled some vague apologies which have gotten a cold reception. What do you have to do to get an apology accepted? Does the worth of your apology scale directly with the magnitude of the crime? Do you have to do something really horrific to get people to forgive you? Sin boldly, Senator!

I have no brief for Lott. I don't care if he stays or goes. But the glee with which Lott is being thrown to the wolves suggests a certain eagerness for sacrifice. If we can offer up Lott, perhaps we can forget that far more objectionable men were retained and "rehabilitated".

And not all of them are Republicans.

You're a Mean One, Mrs. Grinch

Now here's a fun couple.

After years of sending friends anti-Christmas cards, one of which featured a homeless Santa and another battered child angels, Valerie and Trevor Williams decided to "go big" this year.

"Dear Paula and Paul,
We didn't get your Christmas card last year. We're sure it just got lost in the mail. It must have something to do with unfair, unhealthy conditions at Canada Post, because we got almost no Christmas cards last year. We formed a Blue Ribbon Panel of Concern at the International Workers' Committee to Stop War, End Racism, and Force Equality to look into this matter. So here's hoping you get this year's little gem. Ha ha! Wouldn't a reindeer barbecue be fun? Dibs on the nose!

Yours in solidarity,
Valerie and Trevor"

The result can be seen on a billboard looming over the Pat Bay Highway near Victoria, where commuters, rushing no doubt to buy gifts, are faced with this stark message: "Gluttony. Envy. Insincerity. Greed. Enjoy Your Christmas."


"I think the billboard is stark, it's angry, it's red. Black letters on red, the Christmas colours," she said when asked to describe the sign.

"Dear Wind Blossom,
Yes, we did consider the impact on the environment and local aesthetics before we bought the advertisement on the billboard. But, surely you must see how very, very important it was to get our own personal message out to The People. Remember that we didn't put up the billboard; it was already there. Without our message, it would've read CONSUME! CONSUME! CONSUME! or GREED IS GOOD or KILL BROWN PEOPLE; well, not in so many words, but you know it would amount to the same thing. We intend to explain fully at the annual winter solstice meeting of the International Workers Committee for a 10th Century Future. But please note that, in order to remain pure to our "No Christmas" beliefs, Trevor will not be bringing his special alfalfa-tofu bars this year.

Yours for a greener tomorrow,
Valerie and Trevor"

And instead of greeting cards, the Williams have sent out a mass e-mailing to friends and strangers alike, urging them to join their campaign against the evils of Christmas.

"In response to the growing onslaught of manufactured consumeristic Christmas cheer, we have decided to actively reject the capitalist ideology of Christmas. We refuse to spend one cent on buying into the consumer machine this year -- no tinsel, no tree, no shiny balls, no Christmas cards, no presents, no wrapping paper, no turkey, no cranberry sauce, no candy canes, and no icicle lights," states the Williams's e-mail.

"Christmas will not be coming to this house.... Join us in our Christmas rebellion!"

(My emphasis.)

"Dear Mr. Lewis,
We don't care what you think, our little mailing was not "spam". "Spam" refers only to commercial mailings---which, we assure you, we find as objectionable as you do. Commercial entities have no rights to our personal mailboxes, we agree, but as we are far from commercial entities, this does not apply to us. We are unimpressed by your threat to "tattle" on us to our ISP! In the exceedingly unlikely event they should try to shut us down, we will not be shy to take action against such attempted censorship. We have free speech rights in this country, you know!

Don't you have anything better to do with your life than indulge in this sort of petty carping?

Valerie and Trevor Williams"

A few seasons ago they started to boycott the whole gift-giving, carol-singing, egg-nogging thing and began to send out the anti-Christmas cards, along with a note informing family that instead of giving them gifts they were making donations to charity.


But Mrs. Williams urges her friends to boycott gift giving, and instead to explain to children that their present money has been given to a charity in their name, to help people in need.

"Dear Catherine,
No, I will not be sending your charity gift to the Canadian Alliance this year. That's about the furthest thing you could get from a charity, as if you didn't know. In fact, there won't be any Christmas gifts for your family this year. You've mocked and subverted my beliefs for our entire lives and I'm simply sick of it. That includes your kids, too. I remember last year when your daughter wrote to ask me for a Barbie make-up kit for Christmas. The womyn is eighteen, for Gaia's sake. Don't tell me you didn't put her up to it.

Your sister,

"Who is Santa?" she asks heatedly. "He is the mall's puppet.... Children are taught to worship this white, heterosexual man who overeats. I mean, it's wrong."

"Dear Dad,
Yes, I know that a 'white, heterosexual man who overeats' describes you. No, I wasn't thinking of you directly when I said that, although you should realize that, by your position as a white male heterosexual Christian, you are a member of the patriarchy and therefore an oppressor. But you know that; we've had this conversation before.


After I read about the Williams' brave assault on Christmas I got up and went into the living room, because I always pace when I think. There, I found the Santa hats that Niles and I bought last night. Instead of a cuff of white fur at the bottom, they have a cuff of leopard fur. That's right, real leopard fur. We bought them at Wal-Mart last night. Five dollars each.

I put my hat on and danced around the room, singing "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas".

Ho ho ho ho ho! We went out today and consumed some more!

Via the insufficiently even-tempered Damian Penny

Friday, December 13, 2002

Peace and War

After I'd written the post below, but before I'd published it, Glenn noted that some similar comments of his had produced some indignation. He mentioned specifically Jim Henley of Unqualified Offerings.

Henley's a thoughtful guy, and if he's opposed to war it's for thoughtful reasons, even if (if) he's wrong.

The people I talk about below are not thoughtful people, at least not on this issue. Frankly, I don't think the US should go charging into each and every one of the world's hellholes, saving the big-eyed children and fluffy bunnies from the big bad dictators.

But the peace protesters and celebrity ninnies do base their arguments on the fate of The Children, and they are morally obligated to remember what kind of regime it is that they're defending, and how that regime treats The Children.

This doesn't necessarily mean that they are forced to support war. No, no. There is a third way.

If they are really are opposed to Saddam and his thugocracy, and equally opposed to US military intervention there, they can go to Baghdad and protest to Saddam in person. They can join hands and sing Kumbaya and march through the streets peacefully demanding Saddam dismantle his palaces and feed his people, and release the children he's imprisoned to guarantee their parents' behavior, etc.

Heck, I'd just like to see a few of them do that here, let alone there.

If they do that, I'll believe they're as anti-Saddam as they are anti-war.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

War and Peace

Saddam banks on protesters to quash effort to strike Iraq
U.S. anti-war protests spread
Celebrities urge Bush to avoid Iraq war
Aragorn Thinks the US is Saruman
UPDATE: Sean Penn Arrives in Baghdad for Three-Day Visit

When you advocate a war---when you have examined the available evidence and come to the conclusion that the only resolution is force---you cannot help but know what you are doing. You are suggesting that people---almost certainly other people, not you---should go off and risk their lives for this cause. They in turn will kill still other people, sometimes people which were not particularly responsible for the policies of your adversary. That aside, war is disruptive, bad for the environment, business (in the long run), society, and unhealthy for children and other living things.

If you've spoken in favor of this war, and the war goes badly, you will be blamed. People will say you have blood on your hands. And even if the war goes well, many people will say that anyway. If there is peace, those people will remember that you advocated war.

You know all that when you speak out.

But if you are for peace, you have none of these worries. Peace is never wrong. Peacemakers are always on the side of the angels. You cannot be criticized, can never blame yourself, for advocating peace. Peace is only the absence of war, right? All that's necessary for peace is to refrain from (or cease) prosecuting war. So not only is urging peace easy, actually making peace is easy.

Now, if you advocate peace, and war comes, and the war goes badly, you can say, "I told you so". Maybe you'll even be pleased. If the war does not go badly, then you can always pretend it did.

And if you are successful in preventing war, you can sit back in satisfaction of a job well done. You will never have to worry that it was a mistake. You will never have to fear recriminations.

For example, you will never have to worry about Iraqis or Afghans or Iranians coming up to you and spitting on you. You will never have to worry about them "thanking" you for saving their oppressors. For the continued starvation. For the missing loved ones.

You will never have to worry about these people screaming that you have blood on your hands.

Because odds are, they'll be dead.

And you may be too.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Light Housekeeping

I've cleaned up around the place a little. I've added two links to the blog roll which were long overdue, and I've increased the width of the column where the posts go. I hope this will make them more readable. Once upon a time, there was some reason why I thought I had to have a narrower column, but I guess that need never materialized.

I've probably screwed something up. Guess I'll find that out in time.

Turkey Trek

I want you to know I struggled for just minutes wondering which brilliant title to put on this post.

This is just breathtaking. The reviewer says it's a Turkish remake of Star Trek but I'm going to boldly go where I've often been before and declare that he's mistaken.

The reviewer, Seanbaby, does not speak Turkish, and the video is not subtitled. So it's hard to know what's going on, both for him and for us.

Well, I was going to speculate here, but I decided to put my mighty Google skills to use and maybe I'd actually find out something (NOTE: this is why I don't have a position in humanities at an Ivy League university), and I uncovered the following info.

As I suspected, this film is actually one of a series about Turist Omer:

"Turist Omer" is a series of films about some idiot in a poor excuse for a cowboy hat, who always winds up in bizarre situations. This time around, Omer gets mistakenly beamed aboard the Starship Enterprise, where he's dropped right into the middle of a Turkish rip-off of "Star Trek" episode "The Man Trap." If you're familiar with this episode, then you shouldn't have any problem following the film without blowing a vein in your forehead, but if you're not, then it's just a bunch of rampant idiocy with this Omer weirdo not helping the confusion any.

According to several sites, Turist Omer Uzay Yolunda means Tourist Omer in Star Trek.

See here for the poster for what looks to be the original Turist Omer; note that he's getting married here as well. (Dig that great font at the head of the page.)

Some confusion about the theme music. This site says:

The filmmakers have even been so bold as to use the original opening sequence from the TV series (tinted yellow, in the hope that no one would notice), although they use a surf guitar version of the TWILIGHT ZONE theme instead of the famous STAR TREK theme!

Whereas this site, at the delightfully-named, says:

The plot swipes from Man Trap, Amok Time and Tomorrow is Yesterday and they went so far as to just outright steal the opening credits from the series, replacing the music with "Out of Limits" by the Ventures!

It also looks (from the screen shots on The Wave) like it parodies "I, Mudd" and possibly "Arena" and "A Private Little War".

Note: If you want to be ahead of the pack like Colby, this site sells this movie on DVD-R. Be sure and read their DVD-R page before thinking about buying. It also has the Turkish Star Wars that Seanbaby mentioned.

Various sites give the date of the movie as 1973, '74, or '75, so it's not like this is new. Many of the sites I found were in Turkish.

This is probably the sort of thing that I would have already known about had I stayed on my original career track of Hopeless Trekkie. But back in '79, that really didn't look feasible. Neither did female fighter pilot (subject of a Post to Come). Little did I know!

UPDATE: Doh! I forgot! Found via the Queen of Spleen.

UPDATE: Jeremy Walker writes in to tell me that "Out of Limits" by the Ventures is basically a surf-rock version of the Twilight Zone theme song. (You'd think they'd save that for a version of the Outer Limits theme song, except that I don't remember what that sounds like.) Apparently it's not a direct cover, because their album The Ventures in Space has both "Out of Limits" and "Twilight Zone" on it. Unless, of course, their "Twilight Zone" is nothing like the TZ theme. I don't know, because couldn't find on-line copies of those songs in the little googling I was moved to do.

Monday, December 09, 2002

It's Not Just an Adventure, It's a Job!

Today's Houston Chronicle has a front page above-the-fold puff piece on activist Diane Wilson. (WARNING: That link will probably soon rot and be consigned to the realm of pay-per-view articles.)

Anyone who has the vision of Houston as the bastion of tough-talkin' Texas conservatism has his hat on too tight. The Chronicle is a surprisingly liberal paper, but you'd think they'd be able to do better than this soft soap job. (Many would argue that Houston isn't the Real Texas anyway.)

The article is headlined "Protester's focus now on Bush ranch", with sub-head "Despite stint in DC jail, Texas woman undeterred". I'd tell you the gist of the article, but it doesn't seem to have one. It mainly rambles on about her various protesting activities, and arrests for same.

The article does her as saying that she's cooking up something for Crawford for Christmas. More on that later.

It does mention the time she tried to sink her shrimp boat on top of an outflow pipe, until the Coast Guard stopped her (note that that link goes to an interview with her by a vegetarian, animal activism site; guess them shrimp ain't cute and furry enough).

The rest of the article jabbers on about Wilson's recent escapades. Like climbing the White House fence to hang an anti-war banner. That got her arrested, so she didn't have to join the other women in stripping for peace on the Capitol steps. (That link goes to Starhawk's diary! Wow! Scroll down to October 2. Dove bras!)

Seems she was told by a judge that she should stay out of DC or risk incarceration for her fence-climbing stunt. (This part is confused; Wilson says that she was told to stay away from arrest for protesting for a year, or else that fence-climbing charge---a misdemeanor--would be levied. It's not clear whether that applies to protesting only in DC, and whether the court involved has jurisdiction anywhere else. She also seems to think that she can't go into DC for any reason, or risk arrest.) No one at the court or her court-appointed attorney's office would confirm or deny that.

So much for background. Now, naturally I support the right of protesters to protest whatever they feel like protesting, no matter how stupid the cause. (I don't want them climbing the White House fence, though.) But what really ticks me off are protesters who've decided to make careers of protesting. Doesn't matter what it is. As long as the US government's fer it, they're agin it. "What are you protesting?" "Whaddaya got?"

I envision that in the future (which is distinct from THE FUTURE!), we'll have pitiful obnoxious commercials for professional protesting services, just like ambulance chasers now have. "Protests for all occasions! Winter or summer! Rain or shine! Baker's Dozen special: rent 12 protesters, get the 13th free!"

Here's an apt quote from Ms. Wilson her own self:

But protesting is woven into the fabric of my life. It's who I am.

And here's what she didn't say: "One day I, who'd been nobody, was on TV. And people knew who I was, and thanked me for my work, which is more'n my kids ever did. I'm hooked on the adrenaline and the publicity now. If I gave up protestin', I'd have to go back to bein' nobody. All in all, protestin' beats shrimpin' any day. Getting up at dawn to protest is a hell of a lot better than getting up before dawn to get into a cold boat and go out on the cold ocean. And even my fellow protesters don't stink as bad as the damned shrimp."

As for her plans for Bush's ranch:

Right now I'm just dreamin' and schemin'. We want to do a surprise inspection at a presidential palace. He's demanding it in Iraq and we're demanding it here. We need to see those cupboards and guest rooms. We need to look in the refrigerator. We need to know: Is that jelly in those jars, or what do they have in those jars?

Now, does she think Bush is building nukes in his basement? To me, this says, "Stupid Bush, invading Saddam's privacy. We're going to invade yours!" But inspections is exactly what she called for when she disrupted Rumsfeld's testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. Does she not want them now? Does she think the presidential palaces should be off limits? Or is she just a dimwit? I'm betting on the last.

Even given the right to protest, even assuming (which I will not, but some people do) the right to trespass on Bush's property to make your point, this is stupid. This particular stunt would only say, "Nyeah nyeah Bush. We're protesters who will protest anything, including the actions we protested for three months ago." Morons.

In another sterling example, the son of Weather Underground members, Chesa Boudin, is getting a Rhodes Scholarship. His ma's been in jail for something like twenty years for an armored car robbery that killed two cops and a security guard. Little Chesa was raised by two other Weathermen, one of whom is Bill Ayers, college professor and unrepentant terrorist. Awwwww.

He also is member of Yale Coalition for Peace, helping organize protests against military action in Iraq. He hopes to pursue a career fighting for human rights and social justice issues in developing countries in Latin America.

"I feel very lucky to have grown up in a household where people care, where people are interested in the way that our system works," Boudin said.


"Chesa is just a great example of what is possible if we hang on to our children," Dohrn
[the other Weatherman who raised Boudin] said.

Come to Chesa Boudin's House o' Protest, protests for every occasion. Deep, deep discounts on protests against Yankee Pig-Dog Imperialism. Our family has been subverting the dominant paradigm for over thirty years.

Sunday, December 08, 2002

Sofa-Sized Art of THE FUTURE!

What will art be like in THE FUTURE!? Why, we'll have lighted pictures on our walls that move and talk. I went to a restaurant last night that had a back-lit picture of a waterfall, with effects that made the waterfall seem to move (not very convincing) and light ripple on the pool below (much better). It also gave off bird calls and watery sounds, which I know only because we were seated immediately under it. I looked for an on-line picture of something like it, and only came up with this company. This looks much more expensive than what the restaurant had, although the cheesy JavaScript fountain there on the home page gives a good feel for what the actual picture looked like.

Niles and I figure that in a couple years flat-screen monitors will be so cheap that they'll be used for moving art. In restaurants and bars they'll move and flash, and become as annoying as neon bar signs. It's unclear at what point art and televsion will become indistinguishable.

When I was a kid, my grandparents had a lighted picture of a mountain scene. It was just a piece of plastic with a light bulb behind it; it did not move or make any noises. I was fascinated with this; it was clearly a commercial product, but I've not seen another like it.

Google is an amazing and wondrous thing. While looking for an example of the pictures, I came across this page where you can order lighted belly-button art. Wonders will never cease.

Forced Busing

I said below that the safe and cuddly 1950s was not real. But at least part of it once was, and that was the part about sending your children on unaccompanied bus trips. When I was young---maybe about 7, but I could have been as old as 10---my parents sent my little sister and me to visit our grandparents, about five or six hours away by bus. This was in the late '60s. My sister is two years younger than I, so I was in charge. I can't imagine anyone doing that today. I remember nothing about it except getting off the bus at one point because my sister wanted something to eat.

We took the bus two or three times, but the practice came to a screeching halt the day my parents suddenly decided we should go, but they couldn't get hold of either set of grandparents. Figuring that grandparents either had no lives, or would never dare live them without notifying my parents, Mom and Dad deduced they were just out shopping or something, and sent us on ahead. Now, I was on the low side of 11, but even I knew that was a bad idea, and said so. I was told to shut up and leave the thinking to them. After all, it was five or six hours. Surely they'd be able to contact somebody by then (we had a bunch of relatives in the area).

My maternal grandparents had skipped town, but my step-father's parents had just been out in the garden or something. They were glad to see us, but Grandma especially was Seriously Displeased with my parents, and said so to us in the car. I was very glad to be vindicated. When my parents came to get us, two weeks later, I wanted to hang around and watch Grandma hit Dad with a switch. But I was hustled out of the room. It was evident that she ripped him a new one, though, grown man or no.

Gas Attack!

Niles likes to sort out the newspaper ads and look over them, just in case he's falling behind on his consumption quotas. Today he opened one and sprang back in alarm, spitting and sneezing.

"Anthrax?" I asked.

No, it was just the Macy's perfume ads. They came with several samples, little flaps you had to peel back in order to get at the scent. Strangely, they all smelled of glue.

One of the envelopes stinking up the newspaper was a dual-flap number from Kenneth Cole: "The new fragrances for men and women."

One side of the envelope says, "Lift to experience Men."

So I did, but all I got was a whiff of gluey perfume.

Thanks to the example of that rat Lileks, I've begun to collect contemporary ephemera, until I get really sick of it. I "collected" this one, but I had to put it in a baggy.

Niles, by the way, has been knocking things over all morning, starting with a spectacular coffee spill. We suspect a nerve agent.

UPDATE: A double baggy.

Saturday, December 07, 2002

One Sunday Morning

"I remember very well the day World War II came to Hawaii.

My sister and I were waiting for the bus to church. Suddenly there were explosions! We didn't know what was going on. I put my Bible up to shield my eyes from the sun, to see what was going on, and a piece of shrapnel hit it. If I had not put my Bible there, the shrapnel would have cut my face, or my eye.

A policeman came by and told us to get home, but we said, "We can't, we must get to our mother. She's waiting for us at church. " She was a Sunday school teacher. He said all right, but when we find her we must go home immediately.

The bus came, and the bus driver let us on. He told us it was an attack. He said, "Everybody get down low," and he drove wildly until we got to the church. We found our mother there, but she made us go home without her, because she had to stay with her students."

---Tour guide at the Iolani Palace, Honolulu, to me; Jan 8, 2002 (From memory, so it might not be 100% accurate)

Thursday, December 05, 2002

Freedom Highway

Here we return to our extremely boring reviews of movies nobody ever wanted to see.

(Note: This review does not refer to the documentary Freedom Highway, directed by Philip King, which starred Bono and a bunch of other musicians, although possibly no one wanted to see it, either.

It might, however, refer to Down Liberty Road, which has the same cast and director, but is supposedly in black and white. Also mentioned at the Jerry Fairbanks (that's the director) collection at Online Archive of California.)

You know, these days, infomercials are a bore. They tell you about the product, but that's all they do. Some company shill will be joined by some washed-up celebrity and they'll ooh and ahh over some useless piece o' crap while an audience of bored retirees applauds every two minutes. Bleah.

Now in the old days, some infomercials had class. You wouldn't necessarily know what product they were for, unless you were told; and sometimes they had an actual plot and characters and everything.

Such as this old beauty from Greyhound, entitled Freedom Highway (that's part I, part II is here). This is a half hour commercial for Greyhound, disguised as a very short and mildly boring movie about history, death, love, war, and death. But it is star studded! Angie Dickinson! Marshall Thompson! Tommy Kirk! Morris Ankrum! Tex Ritter!

There's not much of a plot. Tommy Kirk plays a boy scout on his way to the Jamboree by bus from Seattle to DC. Angie Dickinson plays a young woman travelling from San Francisco to New York, where she has a serious boyfriend. But uh oh! Some chunk-headed football player has his eye on her. Morris Ankrum is a bitter man travelling to DC. Marshall Thompson is the mysterious Man in Black, probably the least mysterious Man in Black in all of literature. I was very disappointed.

Now that we have our cast of characters all arranged, we set them rolling through the romantic American landscape. The movie grips you right from the start, as a tide of panic rises up to choke off your air. You watch the bus roll through mile after mile after mile after mile of BUGGER ALL, and you want to slam your head repeatedly into the desk and die rather than ride 3000 miles in a goddamn bus. Then you realize that it's just a movie, but still must fight to keep the horror down.

It's tough, because little Tommy Kirk (a former Mousketeer) is the least of our worries. His job is to be freshly-scrubbed and inquisitive, and to be told to imagine various episodes of American history as the bus glides across the interminable continent. More frightening is the romantic subplot. Place yourself in poor Angie Dickinson's position---you've got a boyfriend, but this does not deter the good-looking knothead who's taken a shine to you. He is fun and hunky and good with kids(!), but good Lord you're trapped with him on this damned bus for days on end! Do you really want even the nicest and handsomest stranger drooling on you for days? On a bus?

Then there's Morris Ankrum, the Bitter Old Man, muttering sour comments on American history the whole trip. Your modern-day Susan Sontag or Gore Vidal would dismiss him as a completely hopeless pollyanna. When Joe Rockhead the football player finally has enough of him, the mysterious Man in Black explains that Ankrum's son was killed in Korea and posthumously awarded the Congressional Metal of Honor. Ankrum is on his way to DC to pick it up, but believes his son died for nothing. He keeps making little remarks to that effect throughout the first half of the movie.

For example, at one point Tex Ritter boards the bus, riding from Laramie to Chicago. Tommy requests a song, and Tex gives him this one:

Alamo...and the stubborn band that stood in the path of...invasion

A hundred and eighty were challenged by Travis TO DIE
By the line that he drew with his sword when the battle was nigh
And young Davy Crockett was the first to cross over with the gallantry fine in his eye
For God and for freedom a man more than willin' TO DIE

Hiii-yup! Santy Anna we're killin' your soldiers below
That men wherever they go
Will remember the Alamo

They sent a young scout through the battle much bloody and loud
With the words of farewell from a garrison valiant and proud
Grieve not, little darlin', my dyin' if Texas is sovereign and free
We'll never surrender and ever will liberty be

Hiii-yup! Santy Anna we're killin' your soldiers below
That men wherever they go
Will remember the Alamo

Well. Even a savage bloodthirsty warblogger like myself has to wince at lines like that (and not just because they don't scan), especially with poor Morris sitting there. He is moved to say, "Even our songs glorify senseless sacrifice," which brings him a reprimand from the Man in Black.

The first half of the movie drags, but things pick up once they hit the cities of the East. The cast splits up in Philadelphia. Lunkhead has to go sign his football contract, Angie goes to meet her boyfriend in New York, Tommy goes on to DC, and Sourpuss and the MiB take a detour to Gettysburg.

There, an actor seems to be impersonating Will Rogers portraying Abe Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address. He has a half smile on his face, and you expect him to break into a joke at any minute. However, the meaning of the words manages to survive the delivery, and Morris realizes that his son's death was not in vain at all.

We take a side trip to New York to see very young Angie greet her boyfriend Waldo---who is also her boss and quite a bit older than she is. She decides she's in love with No-Neck after all, and dumps the poor sap right there in the bus station to go back to Philadelphia. (We don't hafta feel sorry for him, though, 'cause he's old and nerdy and has a stupid name. Not even though he brought the ring with him.)

Meanwhile we meet up with Tommy and Morris Ankrum at Arlington, where they seem to expect the MiB. While they look for him, he strolls among the tombstones, and we (and Morris Ankrum) begin to realize that he's...a ghost? An angel? One or the other. Morris is more at peace now, and we fade out to "America the Beautiful".

Well. Powerful, eh? OK, maybe not. You have to wonder, sometimes, about the 1950s. Did they take place on a different planet? What genius thought that the best way to sell Greyhound was by an extended, sobering meditation on war and death and sacrifice? Of course, they weren't exactly thinking of it that way; they were trying to sell Greyhound by selling the romance of American history. See America from inside a bus where you can't get out and look around and you're surrounded by the same people for days on end!

Among Prelinger's comments on the Internet Archive site:

The bus -- the most democratic means of transportation, a great equalizer between people, is the perfect vehicle for the freedom highway, a big metal box on wheels in which the faithless ride and rediscover their lost belief.

It's interesting that he should identify the bus as the "most democratic" means of transportation because it is an "equalizer". Which is most characteristic of democracy---equality, or freedom? In a bus, you may be equal to everyone else (although that's not strictly necessary) but you have little freedom, in particular the freedom to get out and look around at the vast country you are supposedly exploring. Actually, maximum freedom would involve getting your own car (true freedom would involve driving alone in your car, unaccompanied by loved ones who say, "For God's sake, we don't have to stop and take a picture every damned mile!"). But since some people have air-conditioned Cadillacs and some people have clapped-out Chevettes, there is no equality in private automobile transport.

Our national obsession with building highways and personalized individual transportation is embodied in our view of freedom as an open road stretching out into the distance.

Damn right it is.

I was going to write something for Buy Nothing Day about advertising, and how rarely I am swayed by it. But there is one type of advertising that gets me every time, that draws me to the TV set in rapt attention. This would be those car ads which show the car driving down an empty stretch of big highway. I love those, especially if they are accompanied by catchy tunes. A few years ago it was Hyundai with a dreamy song, "Get in the Car" (probably written for them). In Australia there were two commercials, one accompanied by "Are You Still Having Fun?" by Eagle-Eye Cherry (a song really about dissolution and disappointment); and "Just Wait 'til You Drive It", another dreamy song written for Nissan. That last showed a man driving along a road that ran by beautiful coastlines, fields filled with leaping kangaroo, and right over the Sydney Harbor Bridge. As he pulls into his corporate parking garage, he hears on the radio that the surf is really great today, and so he smiles and pulls back out again and heads to the ocean. That's an Australian commercial.

To my mind, the highway is freedom. I felt constricted and cramped when living in Sydney. Every once in a while I had to drive a few hundred miles to work at a remote site. I dreaded these trips for a variety of reasons, but there was one part I liked. A small stretch of the trip put me on a big ol' American-style highway, parts of it scenic or lined with flowers. This never failed to calm and cheer me. It was like being home again, like being in California again. When you drive a highway you are Going Somewhere, somewhere wonderful.

My most powerful dreams of home, while I was in Australia, were of driving.

Many of Prelinger's comments make obligatory noises about how our history is in fact a history of shame, involving the displacement and murder of the Indians, etc. While the facts are (mostly) not in dispute, the relentless nagging reminders that we are scum, SCUM, SCUM set my teeth on edge. (I really think this sort of thing is counter-productive, past a certain point. One gets the urge to live down to the criticisms. But that's a thought for another post.)

I've remarked on this before. I probably shall again, until I become shrill and annoying (whoops, too late).

But enough with the negative waves! Let's look at the positive side of this film.

It's the 1950s. It's a time when you could send your 13-year-old cross-country on a bus and not worry about him ending up in a shallow grave. It's a time when neatly-dressed people rode buses and so did stars like Tex Ritter. When 13-year-olds are bright and inquisitive, and politely ask singers for a song, and the singer cheerfully obliges. When some guy starts strumming a guitar and caterwauling on a bus, and the crisp people do not get angry or yell, "Dammit, I'm trying to sleep!" but listen gratefully and applaud.

Why can't we return to those more graceful days? Maybe because they didn't exist. That much politeness in the real world would kill me. But this isn't the real world. It's not a repressed world of forced politeness and obligatory civility; it's a fantasy world where annoyance is unknown, and so politeness unforced.

For example, there's the wonderful moment when Tommy asks Tex for a song. Tex asks him if he's ever heard of the Alamo. Tommy, who apparently is schooled by wolves, says he doesn't think so. Tex then asks if he's heard of Davy Crockett, and Tommy scrunches up his face in a smile and says, "Awww, sure!" (Davy Crockett was a wildly popular TV show of the time, starring Fess Parker. It was made by Disney, who also employed young Tommy Kirk.) Tex and Tommy exchange a genuine smile, which sweeps you into a warm and rosy world where a young fella can meet kindly, famous cowboys on a bus.

And then you're instantly unceremoniously ejected from the happy myth-world by that damned Alamo song.

You're going to need the memory of that moment at the end of the film, when Morris Ankrum and Tommy are at Arlington. Morris's heart is mending, and he gives Tommy (who reminds him of his lost son) an affectionate squeeze. It's supposed to be heartwarming, but to our modern eyes it's just plain creepy; I recoiled from it in horror. Ewwwww!

For a real American democratic bus moment, I urge you to read this story from a bright, inquisitive, young Kiwi lad of forty.

Coming Soon: Cruel parents abandon two young girls on bus, ca 1970.

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

When Blogs Collide

On Monday Lileks's Bleat carried a picture of a man buying a newspaper on a city street. You can see the headline of the paper, but Lileks has altered it to say something like "Bleat Rambles on About the Something Something!" I got that much through various sharpening routines, but I couldn't make out the last two words. They look like Football Defeat or possibly Actual Debate, but that doesn't sound right, and nothing in that Bleat (where he rambles on---beautifully, of course---about lots of stuff) leapt out as a clue.

It was obviously a scene from a movie, but I didn't recognize it. Lileks said it would be revealed in time.

Well, today the Bleat banner---this probably won't survive the transfer to permanent link---is the scene of a small crowd in a warehouse, with a large sign reading "Waste anything except TIME. Time is our shortest material." This, of course, is a scene from the movie When Worlds Collide, a great science fiction movie. (I never read the book, but the sequel to the book was swell, though unfilmed, alas.)

I love the beautiful photography, and the little glimpses of the '50s it shows. I'm still not sure where he's going with it.

Today Lileks says something I've been wondering about. He notes he's spent most of his life living in the shadow of the Bomb, so what's a little smallpox? Has everyone forgotten already? Does no one remember what it was like not knowing what those crazy Russians might do at any time?

Jimmy Carter has been (probably rightly) castigated for his flaccid response to the taking of American hostages in Tehran. But you have to remember what sort of constraints he was under at the time. Outright invasion to rescue the hostages might've led to a nuclear war. Might have. I realize that seems silly now, and perhaps to the informed it seemed silly then, but we unwashed masses were afraid that the slightest jar would give the warmongering Soviets an excuse to launch. Whether this was actually the origin of Carter's timidity, I don't know. Surely the White House had better information. It should be noted when assessing his performance, though. (Of course, he doesn't have that excuse now.)

I can't figure out how those of us who worried we'd be blasted into oblivion (make that hoped we'd be blasted, as it was better than the alternative) can panic at a little bit of anthrax or smallpox. Maybe no one but me took all that bomb stuff seriously (for a while there it was illegal to write a science fiction story without setting it in a post-nuclear nightmare world).

In his Tuesday Bleat (to continue our Lileks Round-Up), Lileks examines the stereotype of the Absent-Minded Scientist, "the clueless Cuthbert Calculus who cannot remember where he put his keys but can always find Orion in the night sky." Tsk. Orion's easy.

Man, I wish I could get away with that. Sadly, most of the people I know these days are scientists, and among scientists you cannot try the "I'm just an absent-minded scientist" wheeze. And since I live with a scientist, I cannot play it on my spousal-equivalent either. If we were all absent-minded and clueless, who would teach classes or meet our many deadlines? Most of the scientists I know are disgustingly multi-talented, and play in klezmer bands or win running trophies or fencing championships. (When I was an undergraduate I took fencing lessons from one of the postdocs in our department, who was twice Austrian national champion---hmmm, but I found a page which suggests he may have just come in third twice.) Those people spoil the whole gig for us lazy asses who'd rather be thought of as absent-minded and helpless (so as to induce other people to do the shopping and deal with travel agents).

Communique from the Outside World

Last month I wrote about the films from the Prelinger Archive. This is (to recap) an on-line archive of "ephemeral films"---mostly industrial or instructional short films designed to showcase a company's products (or just the company), or for use as instructional or informational material, often in classrooms, but sometimes not. They were generally not meant for immortality, but for short-term use, hence "ephemeral".

Many of these films possess interesting qualities that were not always intended by their makers. Some of them show a wonderful slice of the time they were made. Some of them reveal a sort of subterranean zeitgeist, a world view that is not apparent at first glance. Some of them are just plain weird.

In the first post, I mentioned several interesting films in the archive that had been featured as shorts (and put to excellent use) on Mystery Science Theater 3000. In subsequent posts here and here I talk about two other films.

So this all brings us to the other day, when I found an email from Rick Prelinger in my mailbox.

Now, this won't mean much to most of you, but it did to me. He's the guy who saw the value in these little beauties, and saved them (under his bed at first) and collected and studied them, and finally turned them over to the Library of Congress. The collected is comprised of 48,000 completed films, plus another 30,000 cans of unedited footage. That's a heck of a lot of film. In his email, Prelinger said that the on-line collection will peak at around 1700 titles, which is something like 3% of the total number. Wow. So this is way cool.

Prelinger said that he was led here by his logs, which showed a number of people linking to his site from this blog. Surely there's some mistake. No one reads this blog.

Now, one of the things I mentioned in the post on the film Tuesday in November is that the comments on the movie archive are of very confusing provenance. There are comments from Ken Smith (author of this book), and from reviewers who have registered at the site (these are clearly marked). Then there are unsigned comments, plus a shot-by-shot description of the film, and a string of words that sounds like the kind of brief description you'd want if you were going to mine the film for stock footage. Not all of these are on every film (and many films have no information on them at all).

In his email, Prelinger clarified the origin of these comments:

When the Internet Archive upgraded the website this summer, I basically uploaded all of the textual metadata (commentary, synopses, shotlists, notes, miscellaneous rantings) from my company's database up to the IA site so that it would be searchable. It contains Ken Smith's comments that date back to when he worked for me (ca. 1993-94), before there was a _Mental Hygiene_ book. I also added program notes from the _Our Secret Century_ CD-ROMs (as you correctly hypothesize), scripts from some of the films, commentaries and reviews written when the films were released, and entries from our production databases that contain shot descriptions or other useful information. That note about the "superego" was written by someone looking through the collection for shots useful to a film project. There's all sorts of other miscellaneous kibble in there, too.

So there's a lot in there, and it's sometimes not well-separated, and confusing.

So this should probably bring me to the point of Prelinger's email. I disagreed with most of the comments on the site, which I found to have a depressing sameness of tone. Most of them seemed focussed on finding a sinister side to the films, sometimes with fairly flimsy justification (corporate sponsorship = bad). Others were just condescending. I found this very annoying, and I said so in those two posts.

Prelinger was pleased (yeah) by this, despite having written much of that commentary. He said that he'd been disappointed by the uniformity of perspective in the comments, and hoped for different views. He wrote a very kind email, especially considering that I'd said he was a graduate of the "University of Missed Points". (I still think he wildly missed the point.)

He said he looked forward to more. Hey, no problem! (Except for writing up the things, and the risk of boring the pants off of those who aren't interested.) I will have to wrestle with my indoctrinated politeness, though. It's more difficult to snark at someone who has written you a nice email. (I could, of course, simply write a thoughtful, reasoned, critique with no sarcasm, but that'd be real dull.)